Birth to 2

Infants and babies can't truly cooperate, in the sense of willingly going along with an agenda. Parents can create a harmonious synchrony by tuning into their child's needs and meeting them. A one-year-old may be obedient, backing off when his mother chides, "Don't touch that!" But his reaction is externally rather than internally directed.

As a child nears two, being uncooperative is the name of the game. But negativism is actually a positive expression of his drive to be separate from his parents, to figure out who he is. "No" is a powerful tool when he doesn't have many others. Kids this age like to experiment with limits--laughing and coming close to touching a forbidden object, then looking up to see a parent's reaction.

Two-year-olds are also not very good at the second part of cooperation-working in synchrony with others. Their concern with their own needs and demand for instant gratification make it close to impossible for them to share toys and combine efforts.

What Can Parents Do?

  • Talk your child through the steps of a solution: "You really wanted a turn, but it's not OK to take Robby's toy away. Please say to him, 'When you're done, can I have a turn?'"
  • Help your child avoid black-and-white thinking: "What could you give Robby to play with while you play with his toy?"
  • What's the Goal? To introduce your child to the basics of sharing and problem-solving.

    3 to 4

    Three- and four-year-olds usually spend time with other kids in preschool or daycare, where they learn to hang their coats; wait for others to be served; and sit quietly when it's circle time. They tend to cooperate with these rules largely because they crave approval from grown-ups. When they don't comply, it's usually because their natural impulses--to say what's on their mind or handle interesting objects--is too strong for them to control.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Encourage verbal problem-solving, saying, "How do you think that makes her feel?" and "Can you think of some ways to work this out?"
  • Emphasize how much fun it is to make up plays with friends or work together on an art project.
  • What's the Goal? Develop language skills that make it easier for children to listen to others and to practice working out conflicts in play.

    5 to 7

    At elementary-school age, children have more control over their impulses. If they're told not to touch something, they can often rein in their curiosity. They respect authority, and they typically accept household and classroom rules. A six-year-old who is being picked up from a playdate may whine, but he's likely to understand that it's almost dinnertime, and he'll get ready to go.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Share a "family style" dinner, such as at a Chinese restaurant, and point out how sharing the dishes means everyone can enjoy the meal.
  • Create a list of family rules for cooperation, for example, "We don't interrupt each other when we're speaking" and explain the reasoning behind each rule.
  • What's the Goal? To internalize the steps of problem-solving and understand that unless they cooperate, there will be no game or finished project.

    8 to 10

    At this age, the ability to see events from another's perspective and to predict probable outcomes helps kids with both kinds of cooperation (following rules and getting along with others).

    For example, it may be fun to goof off when a substitute teacher is running the class, but they know that if they misbehave, their regular teacher will be angry and pile on more work. So they may choose to comply rather than suffer the consequences. Understanding various classmates' likes and dislikes helps them coordinate projects, like class presentations, more effectively. This is the age when kids like to participate in clubs and Scouting.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Encourage participation in team sports, where teamwork skills are taught and rewarded.
  • Take your child with you to pick out birthday presents for friends, asking your child to think of what the friends like and don't like.
  • What's the Goal? To make sure your child understands the reasoning behind rules and to develop his or her capacity to see others' points of view.

    11 to 13

    In the preteen years, children regress with regard to cooperation. Like two-year-olds, they often test limits and break rules as a way of establishing their independence. They no longer easily accept the rules set by parents and teachers. Hormonal surges make them feel irritable and moody--and unwilling to cooperate.

    At the same time as they are breaking away from parents, preteens are much more interested in their friends. However, they're more likely to want to cooperate only with certain friends and to be distant and even cruel to others.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Begin a "Family Diary" in which each member of the family records their thoughts and feelings. This will give your preteen a safe place to express herself about household rules.
  • Give your child a role in choosing some chores that benefit the whole family-and express your appreciation when he does them.
  • What's the Goal? To get your child to think about the difference between cooperating for a good cause and blindly following the crowd.

    14 to 18

    Teenagers don't just like their peers; they derive their identity from them. A teenager believes he's smart, athletic, or good-looking if his friends think so. Being accepted by a group-even if the group behaves badly-is essential. Obviously this need to be "in sync" with friends can be alarming to parents. And a teenager's continuing effort to assert his independence by breaking the rules compounds a parent's worries.

    But as teenagers move toward adulthood, they can begin to see the bigger picture. They recognize that by following the rules ensures a safer, more comfortable life for everyone. And they can understand that cooperation doesn't mean accepting whatever one's friends say or do.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Suggest to your child a community service project that involves bringing together different people or groups for a worthy cause.
  • Stress the reasons why it's important to cooperate with rules--for example, wearing a seat belt is essential for safety; and calling if they are going to be late eliminates needless worry.
  • What's the Goal? To balance a sense of independence with an appreciation of norms and rules.

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